Being near or in the water brings wonderment and reminds us of why protecting the ocean is the mission of Women Working for Oceans.  “Our members really want a deep understanding of what is below the water, and we want every member to be able to tell the story of why our ocean is vital to all of us,” says W2O Membership Co-Chair, Pat Chory.

In early October, with Boston Harbor Cruises and the staff of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, W2O members were treated to a unique whale watch experience witnessing humpback whales “bubble feeding,” a choreographed technique that forces fish in a circular motion to the surface of the ocean. Whales then lunge from below with open mouths for their feast of krill and small fish.  Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, right off the coast of Massachusetts, is described by the sanctuary as serving up “a sumptuous smorgasbord for marine mammals.”

Stellwagen supports a diverse and varied number of marine animals and seabird species. The tally of our sightings, according to the log from the boat Asteria, included 3 minke whales, 6 humpback whales, terns, jaegers, shearwaters, northern fulmars, gannets, and gulls. On most trips, the crew also records debris that makes it way to the ocean from beaches or is tossed overboard. The Asteria reported that debris from our outing included a plastic bag of trash and a balloon. Unfortunately, we know that more marine debris lurks under the water, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces. All of this debris is dangerous when ingested by marine animals.

On this recent trip, naturalist Laura Lilly’s narration of the action was equally as exciting as the events all around us.  At one point Laura spotted an identifiable tail fluke of the juvenile humpback “London” that she had participating in naming (the pattern on the fluke resembles Big Ben.) Although she claims that naming whales does not make them pets, it was very clear from the tremor of her voice and the animation of her description that she is emotionally attached to these majestic creatures that she knows so well. Whales travel from where they were born off the coast of the Dominican Republic to Stellwagen Bank to feed May to November. Feeding on the rich variety at Stellwagen ensures that when they return to the Caribbean and begin their fast, they will have built up reserves of fat to last through the breeding season.

Whales, like sharks and other marine animals, help regulate the ocean food chain by ensuring that certain species do not overpopulate the ocean; they also contribute to the nutrient mixing necessary to a healthy sea. These enormous fascinating creatures belong to the cetacean species, along with dolphins and porpoises. All of these animals have become a part of a huge economic engine, drawing audiences and bringing in millions of tourism dollars across the globe. “Seeing these animals up close and personal is like seeing a national treasure,” commented W2O’s Anne Peacher.

Naturalist Laura Lilly (top) with NOAA’s Leila Hatch and staff from Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary

“Good for you; good for our ocean” is a saying here at Women Working for Ocean. Afternoons like this remind of how we are inextricably linked to our most precious resource and its inhabitants.

Learn more about whales from the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.